The horrific scenes of people burning alive seemed to live on in an eerie silence as daylight broke over the remains of Bradford City Football Club’s ground yesterday. All that was left of the main stand were rows of bare steel and stone, with
blackened timbers hanging from the few remaining roof supports. The intensity of the blaze which spread ‘quicker than people could walk’ destroyed the main stand area, leaving a skeleton of burned seats, lamps and fences.
People were wandering around outside the ground in disbelief, reminiscent of an air disaster, at what had happened the day before.
Only one person had been positively identified by police by early last night. The 51 other bodies of children, women and men were so badly burned that identification will take many days.
Police removed the last body from the ground at 4 am yesterday, working under arc lights. It was a gruesome sight to see bodies still sitting upright in their seats, covered in tarpaulin.
Saturday began for the fans in a carnival atmosphere at Bradford ‘s Valley Parade ground a short walk from the city centre.
Parents and children were laughing and joking with the police as the preliminaries to the game began. The match, Bradford against Lincoln, was to have been a joyous climax to the club winning the Third Division championship and being promoted to the Second Division.
Bradford city council officials, off-duty policemen and guests from Bradford ‘s twin town, Munchengladbach, were there to celebrate. Ironically, off-duty firemen were at the ground selling raffle tickets for a charity football match which should have been held yesterday. Soon they were all running for their lives.
Disaster struck at 3.43 pm. It is impossible so far to be accurate about the precise cause of the fire, with grossly conflicting reports from witnesses.
There was some kind of disturbance near the edge of a block of seats in the G section of the main stand. It is not thought that there was any crowd trouble in this section but one theory the police are investigating is that a flare or smoke-bomb was thrown or was accidentally dropped.
Smoke was seen coming from the third row in the section but people are apparently used to seeing smoke flares on the Bradford ground.
Then flames licked the underside of the seats, which were a combination of wood and plastic. Below the seats were rows of litter which had piled up throughout the season, said witnesses.
The stand itself was engulfed in seconds, almost as if petrol had been ignited throughout the block. The fire brigade said that when heat builds up so quickly it can cause flames to move much quicker than people can walk.
More than 3,500 people were crammed into the main stand area and this prevented people from moving away from the blaze quickly. They were hampered further by the fact that doors at the back of the stand were locked to try to stop people coming in without paying. The stand slopes downwards from the South Parade.
People had walked through turnstiles and along a wooden corridor before descending the steps into their seats. When the game began there was no way out for them, except by going on to the pitch. Some people seem to have run back up the slope, thinking that they could get back through the turnstiles, and were burned alive.
Others ran forward to try to clamber over a fence and a small wall on to the pitch. But the sheer density of numbers coupled with the thick, choking smoke made people collapse. Some of the dead were found at the bottom of these steps.
A call was made on a police radio to the police operations room in Bradford and relayed to the fire brigade at 3.43 pm. It took the firemen four minutes to arrive at the ground but the speed of the fire was such that the blaze also took only four minutes to grip the entire stand.
The firemen who arrived there were met by a wall of flame and dense black smoke. They were not able to use water on the stand immediately because this would have hampered attempts to rescue people being dragged by the police and friends from the stand.
The only fire extinguishers in the ground were in the clubroom, which is also in the main stand. The extinguishers were put there so that they would be out of the way of fans who could use them as missiles, which apparently had happened previously.
The chairman of the football club, Mr Stafford Heginbotham, was near to tears as he explained what had happened. ‘The fire just spread along the length of the stand in seconds. The smoke was choking. We couldn’t breathe. It was to be our day,’ he said.
Superintendent Barry Osborne, divisional commander for the football club area, who was injured in the fire said that many policemen cried when they saw how badly people had been burned.
He saw smoke coming from a small area of the stand and thought that someone had let off a flare. ‘The smoke was very, very dense. I ran to the stand and tried to help people escape. The flames suddenly appeared and the whole roof took alight,’ he said.
People were clambering over the wall on to the ground with their clothes and hair on fire. The heat inside the stand literally ignited people where they stood.
One elderly man started to walk across the pitch with his clothes and face ablaze. People pushed him to the ground and tried to smother the flames. One man in tears said: ‘He looked as if he was just going for a stroll. He was completely on fire and it looked as though he simply did not know what had happened to him.’
Mr Stefan Krolak, a survivor from Bradford , said he saw the smoke start a few seats away from him ‘The smoke seemed suddenly to set on fire. People were falling on to each other and screaming.
‘They did not have a chance. Tarpaulin fell on them and stuck to their clothes and then ignited. I saw one man lying on the ground, burning from head to foot. There was hardly anything left of him.’
One woman was seen running around the ground with no skin on her arms and face. She was hysterical and trying to find her three children. The team’s coach, Mr Terry Yorath, ran on to the pitch to try to help people away from the stand. ‘It is the worst day in my life. The whole fire seemed to erupt in seconds,’ he said.
Mr Antony Burrows said: ‘One man was stood near me with his hair on fire. There were no fire extinguishers. I had to put my jumper over his hair to put the blaze out.’
Sports reporters covering the game also spoke of the disaster. Mr Tony Delahunte, who was presenting a programme from the ground for Pennine Radio, said ‘The fire seemed to me to start with a smoke bomb. I saw a group of people around the smoke laughing. Then the flames and smoke were all over the place.’
Mr Delahunte was screaming into his microphone describing the scene until it became impossible to continue broadcasting. His face was burned and his car, which he had parked outside the ground, was destroyed.
People were arriving in a daze outside Bradford police headquarters on Saturday evening and early yesterday. One family was in tears, the mother shaking. They stood outside the headquarters, staring at nothing in particular.
Other parents whose children had not arrived home on Saturday called at the police station or sat in cars outside, waiting for news. Hundreds more telephoned the police to try to trace relatives.
The Chief Constable of West Yorkshire, Mr Colin Sampson, said yesterday that a team of doctors and pathologists had worked throughout the night trying to identify the dead.
He appealed to people to be patient while forensic experts identified bodies. ‘I have to tell you that the fire was so intense that identifying people is going to be the great problem we have to face.’
Eighty names were unaccounted for and there were no positive indications about the cause of the fire.
There has been reports of people lighting paper under the seats, and it was important that as many fans as possible who were in the stand or at the Kop end contacted the police. ‘This was a dreadful afternoon. I have never had to deal with such a situation before, and this has put the city on its heels.’
The man in charge of investigating the fire, Detective Superintendent Kevin Cooper was at the game. His son Christopher normally watches from the stand but on Saturday he joined other fans elsewhere.
The stories of escapes are legion. Many who had walked out of the fire stood on the pitch looking back in horror as the flames destroyed the stand.
Bradford council introduced its emergency plans procedure yesterday to give aid to many families affected by the disaster.
Police had an official photographer at the game, watching for crowd disturbance. He photographed the blaze from start to finish and the police will use this as evidence when an inquest is held.
The club’s success had swollen the crowd to 10,000 and arguments will rage about fire precautions at the ground.
It was clear from what the Chief Fire Officer for West Yorkshire, Mr Graham Karran, said yesterday that the ground was far from safe. He was asked if precautions would have been adequate had the club been in the Second Division. ‘I think that is unlikely,’ he said.
Representatives from the fire brigade were due to go to the club tomorrow to inspect it and see whether regulations were being observed. Now they will begin another inquiry, into the cause of the Bradford fire.
Reporter: Malcolm Pithers. You can find this article here.
The Guardian, Monday 13 May 1985 14.42 BST